The Indian Air Force Unit Pakistan Hates Most: Why Mirages and F-16s Could Never Shoot Down MiG-25 Foxbats

During the Cold War Pakistan and India repeatedly received high-end combat aircraft from the West and the Soviet Union respectively, with the skies above the two countries seeing many classes of a fighter going head to head to provide some indication of which power bloc was producing the better aircraft. 

Unlike the Middle East, there was no significant discrepancy in training or preparation between the two sides meaning an inferior class of fighters coming out on top in combat was rare, which made the theatre particularly valuable for evaluating the combat performances of various aircraft. 

Perhaps the most notable example was the almost complete failure of the American F-104 Starfighter, which formed Pakistan’s elite units in the 1960s, to go up against the Soviet MiG-21 fielded by the Indian Air Force, which had considerable implications for the wider Cold War considering how widely both were used and the extent to which they were relied on. 

The theatre also saw the capabilities of one of the Soviet Union’s most capable military aircraft demonstrated over Pakistan airspace, after India acquired a squadron of MiG-25R Foxbats in 1981. 

The MiG-25R officially entered service in the Soviet Air Force in 1970, and modernised variants would continue to serve in the Russian Air Force until 2013 when budgetary constraints led to the early retirement of the fleet. 

The aircraft first demonstrated its capabilities in 1971 when a contingent of four was deployed to a small Soviet facility in northern Egypt and flown over the Israeli-held Sinai Peninsula, where they collected valuable intelligence and evaded multiple attempts by the very top American-made air defences such as F-4E Phantoms with AIM-7 missiles to shoot them down. 

The Foxbat’s near invulnerability was particularly significant since it was used for far more roles than a reconnaissance, with the majority of airframes built for long-range air to air combat and others built for bombing and for suppression of enemy air defences. 

The aircraft boasted an extreme operational altitude of well over 20km, with some variants capable of exceeding 30km, as well as the highest speed of any serial production combat jet at over Mach 3.2. Its endurance was also relatively high for its time. 

The MiG-25R was used by the Indian Air Force to penetrate deep into Pakistani airspace for strategic reconnaissance and frequently penetrated it totally undetected throughout the 1980s. 

Due in part to their very high cost, both to acquire and to operate, only eight Foxbats were acquired by India including six single-seat and two twin-seat aircraft. 

The MiG-25s would usually enter Pakistan subsonically and relied on their extreme altitudes to remain undetected. Indian MiG-25 pilots were reportedly given permission to reveal themselves to Pakistan only after several years of operations, and one incident in 1997, when Foxbats were used to gather intelligence on Pakistani nuclear activities, an Indian MIG-25 pilot accelerated his aircraft over Islamabad and broke the sound barrier over the Pakistani capital. 

The resulting sonic boom sent a strong signal to the Pakistani Military regarding the invulnerability of the Indian aircraft, and while Pakistan scrambled F-16s for the interception, much as Israel had on a number of occasions scrambled its F-4Es 25 years prior, intercepting the MiG-25 proved well beyond the capabilities of the U.S. made fighters. 

The MiG-25 had intentionally revealed its position to demonstrate this point, and this formidable show of force came at a time of heightened tensions between the two South Asian states.

India notably never purchased combat variants of the MiG-25 despite the excellent performance of reconnaissance variants, which could be attributed to a number of factors. 

While interceptor capable variants exported by the Soviet Union, these all went to countries that expected conflict with heavyweight American fighters such as the F-15 and F-14 - namely Algeria, Libya, Syria and Iraq - with even downgraded export variants of the MiG-25 proving more than capable of going head to head with the U.S. Air Force’s elite F-15 units. Pakistan by contrast fielded only much lighter and lower end F-16s as its top fighters - an aircraft which much cheaper MiG-29s were more than capable of guaranteeing a performance edge over and were arguably better suited to countering. 

India became the first export client for the MiG-29 in the early 1980s and has continued to place follow-up orders as recently as 2019 and 2020. Beyond the F-16, Pakistan’s fleet was comprised of ageing Mirage III and modest J-7 fighters, which India already had a very significant performance advantage over. 

It was notable that all clients for combat variants of the MiG-25 were oil-rich states, which could help to cover its very high fuel consumption with their own resources at a low cost. India moved to acquire heavyweight Russian combat jets only in the mid-2000s with the purchase of the Su-30MKI, which currently represents the Indian Air Force's most capable fighter and of which it fields over 250. 

The country’s MiG-25 reconnaissance unit was retired in 2006, and in 25 years of service and frequent overflights of hostile territory, not a single Foxbat had come close to being successfully targeted. 

With the advent of advanced reconnaissance satellites, India had less of a need for these more costly reconnaissance units.

The sole remaining Foxbat unit operational in the world today is fielded by the Algerian Air Force, which heavily upgraded its aircraft to a fourth-generation standard in the 1990s and relies on them for air to air combat as well as reconnaissance. 

Combat variants are expected to be replaced by Russian Su-57 next-generation fighters, a class India is also expected to acquire, while reconnaissance variants are likely to be replaced with some form of unmanned aircraft. 

Pakistan, for its part, has markedly improved its air defence capabilities since the 1990s with the induction of JF-17 fighters armed with PL-12 active radar-guided long-range air to air missiles, as well as upgrading its F-16s with AIM-120C missiles which have similar capabilities to the PL-12.

It has also acquired Chinese HQ-16 air defence systems, and is reportedly considering acquiring the higher end and much longer ranged HQ-9B, which would provide a much more formidable defence than any capability it had during the 1990s.

An older version of this article was published in July 2018.

Post a Comment

If you have any doubt comment me.

Previous Post Next Post